I had been on the road for four weeks, logged over 6K miles, and was growing weary. With a backlog of images to edit and stories to write, I was ready to B-Line it home to Detroit, but there was something happening that I couldn't pass on. A day of driving out of the way and just south of Bismarck, ND was an area creating history. Indigenous tribes from all over North America were assembling, camping, protesting, and creating a movement. No Dakota Access Pipeline. The controversial pipeline set to span four states had received resistance just north of the Sioux's Standing Rock Reservation inciting protests, lawsuits, and law enforcement intervention. Things were serious. Between my beliefs as a conservation photographer and Erin's support of Native tribes for Eldorado, this gathering and location were some thing I had to experience and document.
I knew this was going to be a poignant experience to be a part of, but I had no clue how powerful it would actually be. After spending much of August in the Southwest on and around Native lands, my interest for learning more about Native history and culture had hit fever pitch. I felt like a sponge ready to absorb any and all information that I'd be fortunate enough to have directed at me. Upon arrival Friday night I knew immediately I was in for something truly special. An evening thunderstorm had left the ground damp and the air sharply chilly. Campfire smoke blanketed and infiltrated the entire grounds leaving a mystical haze layer. Songs were erupting throughout as drums thundered, voices chanted, and fluted filled in the gaps. I was fresh out of Burning Man and this was no place like I'd been before.
I was woken up the first morning by the sounds of horses corralled next to me. I was told the Dakota's were horse people, and it showed. Families had not just setup camp, they had moved their homes, horse corrals and all. It was clear by the first morning that my mission here was not to cover the protesters and their work on the front line, my mission was to immersive myself within the camp, showcase the landscape at stake, and show how the largest of gathering of indigenous people in over 150 years were making history. I was here to talk less and learn more. I was a visitor, but was welcomed peacefully and graciously. My neighbors were actual residents of Cannon Ball and the reservation just south of the pipeline; the most at risk. Camping alongside the defenders of water did come with an elevated procedure of respect. Photographs of any ceremony, prayer, music playing, or even sageing were off limits. Photos of the residents were allowed, but only after asking permission. While I had hoped to document more of the culture that surrounded and intrigued me, I had to respect the wishes and protocol of the very people who were welcoming me. All the more reason to focus of the land and the interactions everyone was having with it.
Life in camp was just that, life. Days were filled with prayers, ceremonies, and songs. Pre-teens rode their horses bareback, ceremonial pipes were passed around, and elders relaxed while fires were stoked inside their (magnificent) teepees. Once night fell campfires were started again and laughter erupted endlessly into the night. Honestly, perhaps the most laughter I'd heard in a single place. Watching entire families sit around the fire sharing laughs and stories and not looking at smartphones was a welcomed change from the world around us. Common questions were more akin to "what are you" and less "where are you from," a nod to the diversity of tribes within the camp. My olive skin must have fooled most campers into thinking I was from a native tribe, but I awkwardly had to spoil their excitement when I'd respond "I'm just a white Italian-ish guy from Detroit." At least it always got a laugh.
As the weekend evolved my interactions increased and became more intimate. The more open and respectful I was, the more I was included. Sharing an afternoon smoke with my neighbor let me learn the lay of the land and its ecological significance. She schooled me on how the area we were camping on was a breeding ground for bald eagles and how one time she counted 72 perched in trees and soaring overhead. She also told me how eagles are the messengers for prayers. Upon giving them an offering (tobacco, etc) they are said to take your offering/prayer and carry it up and away. A chance encounter with a younger (and noble) fellow named Cloud led me into witnessing a (somewhat heated) discussion between a Chief and the security staff. As tensions increased a man named Fiddler stepped in. He was a descendant of Crazy Horse, therefore everyone had to stop and listen to had he had to say. Using his lineage he acted as a mediator in the discussion. It became clear I was crash coursing on indigenous culture and practices. Perhaps one of the most profound encounters I had all weekend was with my eight year old neighbor Teagan. From the first morning when he greeted me his inquisition and energy were infectious. We spent quite a bit of time chatting over the weekend, but his summation of the event was the pinnacle of our interaction. On Sunday he told me it was their last night at camp. They had attended (elsewhere) a sun dance and their final pow wow. They had made their final prayers, all of which were to stop their water from being poisoned. At eight this boy knew what was most important; water.
I continued to wake up early for sunrise, roam the camp during the day, and ceremonially shoot sunset. With each step I tried to continually be aware of the events around me. Several more encounters continued to fill my brain with priceless knowledge about the Native ways of life. With so many different tribes in attendance, there was a theme that became clear. While this particular gathering formed around a specific pipeline project and its subsequent protest, there was a larger message being cultivated:
The indigenous were sounding the alarm of Mother Earth.
An alarm that water must be protected, and not just this waterway, but the 200 waterways that other pipelines navigate and potentially endanger. An alarm that their mistreatment and abuse must stop. An alarm that our current and future energy needs must be re-thought and executed differently. With no "Plan-B" for the Dakota Access Pipeline being discussed, their message of "NO DAPL" rang even louder. There are literally people in the camp who would die for this cause, and that was something I'd never experienced, nor will I ever forget.